Colorectal Cancer

What’s the Problem?

Colorectal cancer is cancer of the colon and rectum.  Of the cancers that affect both men and women, colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the US.  It is the third most common cancer in men and women. Approximately 130,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed yearly (67,000 men & 63,000 women).  Deaths from colorectal cancer amount to 52,000 people yearly (27,000 men & 25,000 women).  Symptoms of colorectal cancer may not always be noticeable, especially in the early stages, which is why screening regularly is very important. Symptoms can include blood in the stool, stomach pains, aches or cramps that don’t go away, and losing weight without knowing why.

Who’s at Risk?

The risk of getting colorectal cancer increases as you get older. More than 90% of cases occur in people who are over 50 years of age. Having Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Chrohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis increases risk of colorectal cancer. In 2010, African-American men and women had the highest rates of colorectal cancer than any other racial/ethnic groups.  Rates of death from colorectal cancer were similar. Personal or family history of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps (abnormal growths) can also increase risk of colorectal cancer.  Some lifestyle risk factors include:

  • Lack of regular physical activity;
  • Low fruit and vegetable intake;
  • Low-fiber and high-fat diet;
  • Overweight and obesity;
  • Alcohol consumption;
  • Tobacco use.

Can it be Prevented?

Colorectal cancer almost always develops from precancerous colorectal polyps (abnormal growths).  Screening tests can reveal these growths so that they can be removed before they turn into cancer.  Screening can also help find colorectal cancer at an early stage, when treatment is often more successful. Men and women fifty years or older should get screened regularly. Types of colorectal cancer screening tests include:

  • High-sensitivity fecal occult blood testing
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy (recommended every 5 years)
  • Colonoscopy (recommended every 10 years)

The Bottom Line

  • Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related death among cancers that affect both men and women in the U.S.
  • Colorectal cancer may not always cause symptoms, especially in the early stages, which is why getting regular screenings is important;
  • Screening tests can reveal abnormal growths so that they can be removed before they turn into cancer;
  • Screening is also important for early diagnosis, to increase the likelihood of successful treatment;

Case Example

Lucy’s doctor reminded her she needed to get a colonoscopy.  She felt perfectly healthy and had no family history of colon cancer.  She was anxious about the test and did not want the hassle of prep procedures so she ignored her doctor.  Two years later, her husband convinced her to get screened.  At the age of 52, she underwent a colonoscopy and was diagnosed with rectal cancer.  Her fear and anxiety about the tests was little compared to her fear of dying from rectal cancer.  Because the cancer was in the early stages, surgery offered her a cure.  Waiting until symptoms were present would have been too late.

Page last reviewed: September 15, 2017